Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Yzmo, under a c. Take the helium nucleus, for example: two protons and two neutrons, bound together in a stable configuration.
Even the electromagnetic repulsion between the two protons isn't enough to overcome the glue-like strong force holding the nucleus together. Even if you take a neutron away, leaving you with two protons and just one neutron, that isotope of helium is stable as well. The strong force, at the tiniest distances, will consistently overcome all the others, and hence under many circumstances can be considered the strongest.
The galaxy Centaurus A, with its high-energy jets caused by electromagnetic acceleration. Kraft et al.
Fundamental Forces Manipulation
But try building your atomic nucleus too large and the electromagnetic force takes over. Uranium, for instance, will spit out a helium nucleus every so often, as the repulsion between the different parts of the nucleus is too great for the strong force to hold it all together. Unlike the strong force, there's no limit to the range of the electromagnetic force; a proton's electric field can be felt from the other side of the Universe.
Schematic illustration of nuclear beta decay in a massive atomic nucleus.
Fundamental Forces Manipulation
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Inductiveload, created in Inkscape and released into the public domain. Now, the weak interaction is what's responsible for one of the neutrons-- essentially one of its quarks flipping and turning into a proton. And I'm not going to go into detail of what a quark is and all of that. And the math can get pretty hairy. But I just want to give you an example of what the weak interaction does.
So if one of these neutrons turns into a proton, then we're going to have one extra proton. But we're going to have the same number of nucleons. Instead of an extra neutron here, you now have an extra proton here.
And so now this is a different atom. It is now barium. And in that flipping, it will actually emit an electron and an anti-electron neutrino. And I'm not going to go into the details of what an anti-electron neutrino is. These are fundamental particles. But this is just what the weak interaction is.
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It's not something that's completely obvious to us. It's not the kind of this traditional things pulling or pushing away from each other, like we associate with the other forces. Now, the next strongest force-- and just to give a sense of how weak gravity is even relative to the weak interaction, the weak interaction is 10 to the 25th times the strength of gravity. And you might be saying, if this is so strong, how come this does it operate on planets or us relative to the Earth?
Why doesn't this apply to intergalactic distances the way gravity does? And the reason is the weak interaction really applies to very small distances, very, very small distances.
[No spoilers] Cool magical powers from fundamental forces of nature
So it can be much stronger than gravity, but only over very, very-- and it really only applies on the subatomic scale. You go anything beyond that, it kind of disappears as an actual force, as an actual interaction. Now, the next force up the hierarchy, which is one that we are more familiar with, it's what actually dominates most of the chemistry that we deal with and electromagnetism that we deal with, and that's the electromagnetic force. Let me write it in magenta, electromagnetic force.
And just to give a sense, this is 10 to the 36 times the strength of gravity. So it kind of puts the weak force in its place. So these are huge numbers that we're talking about, either this relative to that or even this relative to gravity. Author links open overlay panel Menas C. Kafatos Keun-Hang Yang. Under a Creative Commons license.
Abstract The existence of universal principles in both science and medicine implies that one can explore their common applicability. Keywords oriental medicine.
Is the Universe Friendly?, by Albert Einstein